The Hidden S in Phone Booth

The Hidden S' Favorite Things: The Fleischer Superman cartoons... Between 1941 and 1943, Paramount Studios released 17 cartoons featuring Superman. This series remains popularly known as the Fleischer Superman Cartoons and was the most sophisticated and well-financed animation of its time. Initially, Paramount had wanted to cash in on the Harry Potter-like popularity of Superman and they approached Fleischer studios' Max and Dave Fleischer to create a series of animated shorts featuring the Man of Steel. The brothers were reluctant to work on this kind of thing since they had a couple of other time consuming projects that they were working on at the time. The brothers seemed to have had at least some curiosity about the project as they proposed they would do the series for $100,000.00 an episode (about six times what a regular animated short would cost). Despite this outrageous proposal, Paramount did not completely balk at this and eventually the brothers managed to get $50,000 per episode, less than their original offer but still many times more than they were used to getting for their other work. The first entry in the series was titled simply "Superman" and it got an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short Subject for 1941. All told, the Fleischers produced nine shorts in this series before Paramount took over from the Fleischers, whose quarreling was starting to interfere with their productivity. The look of the animation continued to be sleek and stylish, but the subject matter tended more towards military propaganda (the first nine shorts focused on Superman fighting off science fiction type monsters, meteors and the like) with Superman/Clark Kent fighting the Axis menace in Japan and Europe. A big part of the look of the animation was in the process of rotoscoping, which was a technique that saw animators trace over live footage. This method was used in these films and as a result, the movements of Superman were particularly graceful and even balletic. The movements of The Man of Steel seemed realistic and when he pushed off to fly or leap you can see the effort in a way that makes sense from a physics standpoint. Besides visual influence, the animated films also helped coin the "Faster than a Speeding Bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound" phrasing. Equally noteworthy was the origin of the "Look up in the sky..." part of the Superman mythology which also originated here. These cartoons remain highly influential. The film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2005) basically stole entire sequences from the Fleischer cartoons. Alex Ross' Kingdom Come Superman was portrayed with the Fleischer's "S" shield on his suit. Anime artists like Miyazaki have referenced this series of animation shorts in their work. Batman: The Animated Series was also consciously influenced by the works of the Fleischers and Paramount. Superman Returns (2006) saw Brian Singer pay homage to the art deco stylings of the Fleischer's work in the design of The Daily Planet and a couple of action sequences (most notably where Superman stops a plane from crashing). The legacy of these cartoons is that they were the first real portrayal of a superhero on celluloid. They also set a precedent for pouring serious money and talent into the cinematic portrayal of a superhero. As for the stories and character the Fleischers and Paramount gave the scripts some real zip and wit. One of my favorites: Lois sees a muscular silhouette in the dark and kisses the man thinking it is Superman only to turn on a light and see that she has kissed...Clark Kent. This kind of romantic ping pong was rarely seen in the comics and really developed for the first time in this series. Finally, it is refreshing to see Superman portrayed as a strong, muscular guy and not as a steroidal freak. The freakish muscularity of superheroes from the 80's to the present has been one of the most annoying and silly aspects of mainstream comics. Artists like Alex Ross and David Aja have been helpful in reversing this trend to a point. Ross' realistic portrayals of anatomy owe something to the dimensions of the Fleischer/Paramount Superman which are grand without being unrealistic. Superman's light-heavyweight frame is somehow formidable without calling attention to itself. These animated shorts remain in the public domain and are available from a number of manufacturers and companies. In April of this year Warner Bros. is set to release what promises to be the definitive versions of these animated films entitled Max Fleischer's Superman 1941-1943. This version will be taken from the original masters and will include featurettes about The Man of Steel and the making of these animated films. I can't wait... The Hidden "S"